You may have run into them at the grocery store’s “superfruit” aisle, or spotted them at the farmer’s market and been intrigued by their odd shape and flashy shade of Pop Art red.
But goji berries are far more than the latest health-fruit craze. These babies have a long history of being one of the most deliciously helpful foods around.
In case you haven’t spotted these ruby beauties in the store or in the wild, goji berries look a bit like oddly oblong raisins, painted a beautiful shade of red.
The stunners got their seedling start in China and Central Asia, where they’ve been growing in wild, shrubby areas for thousands of years. The berries seem to especially prefer the higher altitude regions of the world – including the far tree line reaches of the Himalaya Mountains and across the Tibetan and Mongolian steppe, the world’s ceiling lying on the other side of that towering barrier.
Indeed, it seems the goji berries may not just prefer but outright thrive in more difficult environments, with some scientific evidence linking harsher climate conditions to higher levels of antioxidants in some berries. And even an average goji berry is packed with some pretty awesome nutrients, like vitamins B6, B1, E and a metric ton of vitamin C. (Some have even claimed that goji berries are the most nutrient-dense edible substance on the planet!)
But even before that link was officially made, locals have long intuited the health benefits of the fruit. The berries have been used as a mainstay in folk medicine for years.
In their native China, they’re often eaten fresh as part of breakfast or a snack. And ancient Chinese medicinal recipes call for frequent consumption of goji berry tonic, which was believed to help with everything from liver, kidney, blood, bone and eye health to the nourishment of our Yin energy and even the strengthening of Chi – the very life force itself.
But even someone skeptical of those more mystical claims would be hard-pressed to deny the otherworldly taste of these berries, which comes out something like a sweet, bitter, chewy raisin. In fact, their addicting flavor palate might be one reason why there are so many different types of goji berries out there to choose from!
As it stands, there are over 40 different types of goji berries that have been discovered or developed over the years – though it seems the fruit has even more nicknames than varieties under its belt.
In fact, goji berries have only widely been referred to as ‘goji berries’ in the Western world for the past 20 years. Before that, the fruits were variously known as Chinese Wolfberries, Chinese boxthorn, Chinese mantrimony-vine, Chinese teaplant and the Chinese desert-thorn. Whew!
The change in name is likely attributed to the approximate pronunciation of the name for the berries in a Chinese dialect.
Still, all those descriptions can ultimately be generally categorized under one of two types of goji berry umbrellas: Lycium Chinense and Lycium Barbarum.
Many of the different types of goji berries in the world actually grow wild, and it would therefore be incorrect to call them “cultivars,” as they developed naturally over the years.
Still, the two broad categories of goji berries have been cultivated more widely and much longer than most other varieties. In fact, the types of goji berries you find at the store or farmer’s market are most likely going to be one of these two varietals:
These types of goji berries can most likely be considered the “original” goji berry, growing mostly in Southern China and along the Himalayas. Today, it’s still the most popular type of goji berry in Asia, where it’s typically called a wolfberry.
Lycium Chinense goji berries, technically, belong to the Solanacae family tree, giving them some familiar-yet-unexpected relatives, including green peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants. Yum!
These types of goji berries can be distinguished from the others mostly due to their striking red hue. While all goji berries tend red, some may lean more toward orange or purple. Yet these varietals are as red as red can be.
They also prefer more alkaline soil, which gives them a whole suite of different nutrients, plus a citrusy edge to their flavor pallet.
On the other side of the towering Himalayas is the great Tibetan steppe – and the Lycium Barbarum type of goji berry. (In fact, the prevalence of the fruit in those areas have given it the nickname “The Goji Belt.”)
The berries are mostly left to grow in the wild in these regions, as the fruits are considered especially sacred in these regions.
They differ from their Chinense cousins in a few notable ways. First, these types of goji berries are typically more orange than red and, when fresh, take on a rounder shape. They also have a deep sweetness to their taste not necessarily shared by other types of goji berries.
Still, despite their sacred role in Asia, their general beauty, taste and healthfulness have led these fruits to be the most popular types of goji berries grown in the world, and today, they’re cultivated everywhere from the U.S. to the U.K. to Australia.
Yet no matter which type of goji berry you go with – and whether or not you believe in their sacred traditions – eating them is bound to be a heavenly experience.